Lunar eclipses are more common than the perhaps better-known solar eclipses but they’re no less spectacular from a photographic point of view. Instead of capturing the blocked outline of the sun, photographers can aim their cameras at a moon that’s tinted red by the earth’s own shadow.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know in order to take stunning lunar eclipse images. We’ll explain what sort of equipment you’ll need to pack, which settings to use and how to focus your camera.
Although there are a few dedicated pieces of kit that you’ll need, most of your equipment should hopefully already be in your camera bag.
Photographing the moon in general is one time where an APS-C or micro Four Thirds camera is actually an advantage, because of the different field of view you’ll achieve with the crop factor, making it seem that you have a longer focal length on your lenses. Whatever camera you use though must have full manual control.
Your choice of lens will come down to what photograph you want to capture. Most people will want to use the longest telephoto lens they can afford for a close-up view of the lunar eclipse. You can also add a teleconverter for an even longer focal length. But there is also value in using a wide-angle lens, which we rate as being the best lenses for astrophotography. Using this variety, you can photograph the path of the eclipse within a beautiful landscape.
If you’re using a long telephoto lens such as a 400mm you’ll need a sturdy tripod and head capable of bearing weight even in windy conditions. For added stability you could also add a monopod to support your lens (most longer telephoto lenses come with a tripod collar). We’re big fans of Manfrotto and Gitzo, who make some of the best tripods on the market.
Take lots of extra memory cards and batteries – keep the latter in your coat pockets close to your body to keep them warm. You’ll also need a shutter release or ideally an intervalometer to prevent any camera shake from touching the shutter. If you decide to get serious about lunar eclipse photography (or in fact any night sky photography) you’ll probably want to invest in an equatorial tracker. Once setup, the tracker will automatically adjust for moon movements and means that you don’t have to readjust your composition every few minutes.
The secret to all good astrophotography is planning and preparation! Before you even leave the house, make sure that your gear is all cleaned and packed ready to go. An app such as PhotoPills makes it easy to find out where the moon will be located in the sky during the lunar eclipse. It’s also important to keep a very close eye on the weather forecast as cloud coverage could ruin your shots. It’s advisable to have a few locations in mind to work round cloud directions.
Once you’ve found the right shooting spot and know what the right shooting time is for the lunar eclipse, make sure you’re in place early with plenty of time to set up. Do make sure that your tripod is positioned somewhere stable and level, with no prospect of it being shaken midway through a shot. If the tripod doesn’t have a built-in spirit level, make sure you attach a portable one to your hot shoe initially to get your shots level.
Shoot in RAW to collect as much data as possible and give yourself as many options as possible in post production. Set your aperture to f8 to give yourself a good depth of field and start with an ISO of 100 (or 200 if that’s the lowest on your camera). When you shoot a bright moon, you’ll probably need a shutter speed of around 1/125th – 1/250th of a second. As an eclipse starts this will work for the bright side of the moon but will mean that the dark side isn’t visible at all. So, exposure becomes a balancing act between exposing the dark side of the moon whilst not overexposing the bright side so much that it loses any definition.
Using a longer shutter speed could result in motion blur as the moon is moving quickly through your frame. You can open up your aperture to around f4 (any more than that means not all of the moon will be sharp) but without a motorized equatorial tracker you’ll probably need to raise your ISO considerably. The exact slowest shutter speed you will be able to use will vary depending on the focal length of your lens. A telephoto lens of 300mm and under should be shot at speeds faster than two seconds. But a longer telephoto lens will only allow you to shoot at speeds of around half a second – any slower and the moon will be blurry. Remember though that it’s better to have noise in your image than motion blur.
While it’s probably advisable to bracket your shots with one-stop bracketing of three photos so that you have a selection of shots to choose from, blending different shots together in post production can look really artificial when it comes to images of the moon. Instead, we’d recommend exposing for the highlights during a partial eclipse and, once the moon nears totality, switching the metering over to the shadows.
You don’t want to be refocusing on the moon every time you take a shot so we’d recommend that you turn off autofocus and use manual focus to get the moon pin sharp in your shots. Take a photograph and use your LCD screen to zoom into the moon and acquire precise focus. Zoom all the way in and make sure that all the features of the moon are in focus. You can try using autofocus to take this initial shot before the lunar eclipse starts – focusing on the edge of the moon will probably make it easier for your camera to acquire focus.
Of course, if you’re photographing the lunar eclipse alongside an interesting landscape or subject, we’d recommend that the focus is on said subject. Remember that if your subject is behind the hyperfocal distance the eclipse will still appear sharp in your photograph.
A lunar eclipse isn’t the easiest phenomenon to capture. So, we’d recommend practicing with other night sky photography before an eclipse to be comfortable with shooting. Try our guides to photographing the moon, star trails or the milky way to improve your photography skills before the next lunar eclipse.
If you’re just shooting with the moon to fill the frame you don’t need to worry about composition as you can easily crop the moon into place in post production. What matters most is a correct exposure and a sharp moon. For ease of shooting though we’d recommend placing the moon in the top left corner frame to start with and letting it move towards the right bottom corner. As it approaches the bottom you can move it back to the top left again.
If you’re photographing the moon in the midst of a landscape look for leading lines to direct your viewer’s gaze into the image and help direct them towards the moon. You could also consider using the rule of thirds to help balance out your image.
And if you want to have stars in the photograph alongside the moon, we’d recommend shooting these separately and then combining the two images.
Lunar eclipses explained
So, what is a lunar eclipse? Lunar eclipses occur when the Earth moves between the sun and the moon, blocking the sun’s light that would otherwise reflect off the moon. There are three types of eclipse – total, partial and penumbral. A total eclipse is the most dramatic, as the darkest part of the Earth’s shadow (known as the umbra) completely covers the moon.
A lunar eclipse actually goes through seven phases or stages in total:
Penumbral eclipse begins (P1): The penumbral part of Earth’s shadow – which is the outer part – starts to move over the moon. This phase is extremely difficult to observe with the naked eye.
Partial eclipse begins (U1): The Earth’s umbra starts to cover the moon, making the eclipse more visible.
Total eclipse begins (U2): The Earth’s umbra is completely covering the moon, turning it red, brown or yellow. This is popularly known as the Blood Moon.
Greatest eclipse (Max): This is the central moment of the total eclipse.
Total eclipse ends (U3): As the Earth’s umbra starts to move away from the moon it starts to become visible again.
Partial eclipse ends (U4): The Earth’s umbra completely leaves the moon, allowing it to become entirely visible.
Penumbral eclipse ends (P4): The Earth’s penumbral shadow moves away from the moon, signaling the end of the eclipse.
Upcoming lunar eclipses
There’s a partial eclipse on November 19, 2021, with all 50 states able to catch it in its entirety. It peaks at 4.04am EST and is the final lunar eclipse of 2021. Next year (2022) will only see two lunar eclipses but they’re both total eclipses. The first, on May 15th – 16th will be visible from North and South America, Europe, Africa and parts of Asia. This will be followed by a second lunar eclipse on November 8th that will be visible in North America, Asia, Australia, most of South America and parts of northern and eastern Europe. NASA keeps a list predicting lunar eclipses until 2100.